Guilt, as Jewish as bagels and lox, can trigger growth

Philip Roth writes about it. Woody Allen oozes it. And every stereotypical Jewish mother doles it out.


Some say it's as Jewish as bagels and lox. But whether or not Jews have cornered the market on it, many contend guilt need not be such torture.

In fact, despite diverse New Age rituals striving to decimate it, many contend guilt is actually good for the soul.

"Despite the ethnic caricature brought about by guilt, it's not meant to be debilitating. It's meant to be a trigger for change or betterment," says Rabbi Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

"Guilt is an emotional, psychological and spiritual response to having acted in an incorrect way or to having done something that is wrong."

The authors of the Torah knew that. They devoted seven sections of the Book of Leviticus entirely to ritual sacrifices geared toward ridding a person, or even an entire community, of guilt. Pages and pages detail the use of domestic animals, sheep, goats and bulls for absolution.

Jews no longer engage in those techniques. However, Yom Kippur serves the same purpose — to guide us in taking responsibility, making amends and asking for forgiveness.

"What we as Jews do is at-one-ment" with God, Derby says. Yom Kippur "is the universal Jewish day to look at our actions, see which have made us feel good and not good — and meditate upon how we'd like to change our behavior in the future."

But prayer is not enough. Our tradition dictates that we must apologize to those whom we have wronged, and ask for their forgiveness.

We must apologize to Aunt Frieda for laughing at her drag-queen-style makeup.

We must say we're sorry to a co-worker for serving her regular coffee instead of decaf, knowing full well she can't stomach the stuff.

We must apologize for snapping at the difficult client: That he clearly was in the wrong is beside the point.

It is guilt that moves us to respond to such actions, to right what has gone wrong, Derby says. Guilt "should be an incentive for growth and personal change. But it [should] never be a permanent or indelible existential stain."

Nonetheless, many Jews, such as San Francisco comic Lisa Geduldig, prefer to home in on guilt's more negative effects.

She alludes to needling (aka "Jewish acupuncture") and explains, with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, that "the guilt meridian is activated and the pain is so great you have to respond."

Actually, while guilt should serve as a moral wake-up call to do what is just, therapists and rabbis agree it can not only be exhaustive and disabling, in some cases it can even be paralyzing.

Consider "survivor guilt" — a term coined by psychotherapists and analysts to describe Holocaust survivors' pain and listlessness following World War II.

It was first observed in individuals "who walked around looking dead. White. Quiet. Trying to be close to their dead relatives," explains Joe Weiss, a psychotherapist at Mount Zion Research Center in San Francisco.

The survivors' behavior was "a sign of love" for departed kin, albeit "not a particularly healthy [one]," he says.

In the 50-plus years since the war, survivor guilt has been noted in those who were eligible for service in Vietnam but did not go, and in persons who lived unscathed through natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

In his book "How Psychotherapy Works," Weiss contends that, in fact, nearly everyone suffers from this condition to some degree.

He defines survivor guilt as the assumption that fate has dealt one a better hand than it has dealt one's parents and siblings, and that the favorable treatment was at the parents' or siblings' expense.

Citing one of the condition's most visible symptoms, he said, "A person who suffers from this may fail to take advantage of his opportunities; or, if he does take advantage of them, may find some way of punishing himself for doing so."

Essentially, sufferers constantly repent for wrongdoings they never committed.

Yael Moses, supervisor of adult services at the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, adds that survivor guilt affects not only the sufferer and his or her family but the entire community.

According to Moses, "survivors ask questions like, `How did I survive [when] my brother didn't?' `Am I better?' `Was I less ethical?' `Was I more deserving?' `Is there a price of survival?'"

The prevalent feeling after the Shoah, he says, was, "`Maybe if I don't talk about it, it will go away.' There was silence for so long.

"But now people sit around and tell survivor stories. The guilt has moved from a personal to a community responsibility. And as the community is more able to look at what the guilt means, the individuals can heal better too."

Although survivor guilt was first observed in Jews, both Weiss and Moses hesitate to make any sweeping generalizations or draw a correlation between guilt and ethnicity.

Derby, on the other hand, posits that Jews do suffer more guilt than most. As the "chosen people," Jews have a distinct moral code to follow.

It's not just a matter of following the Ten Commandments, which is a difficult task in itself. But the Torah cites yet another 603 mitzvot.

Count them. We are commanded to visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, donate to charity. We are forbidden to deceive anybody in business, to humiliate others publicly or to consult soothsayers.

Statistically, the chances for moral "failure" are great.

In addition, "We have super-advanced superegos," Derby says. "I think this is because Jews always cared about what is just and ethical. That is our Torah."

And that, he says, is what sets "Jewish guilt" apart from other groups' guilt.

Sex, for example, is connected with sin — and thus with guilt — in various Christian denominations. But for Jews, "guilt does not wrap itself around sex," Derby says.

Instead, Jews feel guilty about evading mitzvot, or about acting unjustly or unethically in relationships and business.

"These are commandments between God and the Jewish people. When we sin [by not following them], we feel shame," Derby says. "Guilt is a way of saying, `I have distanced myself from God.'"

After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were guilt-ridden and hid from God in the garden of Eden.

"When people feel guilty, they cut themselves off," Derby said. "What they want is tshuvah — to come back to God."